Saturday, February 5, 2011

Science Fairs

Now, I may not be the best qualified to discuss a science fair, never having participated in one, but I recently read a New York Times article on the decline of the science fair, and I wanted to respond. The whole article is a quite worthwhile read, but the line that irritated me into action was, "many science teachers say the problem is not a lack of celebration, but the Obama administration’s own education policy, which holds schools accountable for math and reading scores at the expense of the kind of creative, independent exploration that science fair projects require." It seems that viewing math and reading as somehow in opposition to creative, independent exploration is yet another example of why our education system is declining.

Setting aside, for now, the belief that reading and math are both inherently sources for creative, independent exploration, let me first argue that reading and math are cornerstones of science. While I may not have participated in any science fairs, toward the end of elementary school I did design and conduct my own experiment, with assistance from my parents of course. One convenient facet of moving so much as a child is that, if I can remember where something happened, I get a fairly accurate idea of when it occurred.

My experiment involved seeding multiple little, plastic flowerpots with grass seed, then covering them with plastic 5 gallon buckets for different durations throughout the day. My hypothesis was that, since sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis, grass that was covered during less of the day would do better. More interestingly, I wanted to see how significant a small decrease in the length of the day would be and what would happen to the grass living in almost total darkness.

While I don't recall exactly what results I obtained, I do recall there being interesting differences between the pots. In order to describe these differences I used not only qualitative standards, such as the color of the grass, but also the quantitative standard of how high it grew. Any time you use a quantitative standard, there is a good chance your experiment can benefit from mathematical understanding. Most fundamentally perhaps, one can plot the data points then approximate a function to describe the relationship between sunlight and grass height. Then, if one knows math, one can translate one's knowledge about functions into further educated guesses about the behavior of grass. Also, if one is curious about the results that others have already obtained on the subject, the ability to read critically is probably going to be a crucial one to have.

That said, I happen to believe that reading and math are both fertile sources for personal creativity. Some of my most prized remnants of my grade school education are poems that I wrote, either for official assignments or personal gratification, I was a sad little emo-kid (see how I pretend that has changed...). To consider the ability to write as independent from the ability to read seems silly enough that I believe I do not need to address it, please correct me if I am mistaken. Another piece of paper that I treasure contains my verification that the power rule of differentiation works for arbitrary polynomials. This was not part of a homework assignment, but I knew the power rule and the limit definition of the derivative, and I was curious why it worked. If that isn't independent exploration, then what is?

I guess that my main point is that, not only are math and reading essential parts of scientific exploration, but personal exploration is an integral part of any education, math and reading included. Furthermore, we absolutely NEED educators at every level emphasizing this message to students. Otherwise we populate our college calculus classes with students concerned only with what is true and what the answer is, rather than why things are true and how to obtain answers for themselves. This trend is not only deleterious to our education system, but also to our society, as it seems destined to produce citizens who would rather be given the "answers" than wrestle, often futilely, with the important questions.


elfarmy17 said...

I agree-- there's a serious dearth of reading/writing/doingmath/exploringscience simply for the sake of it.
A very dear friend of mine refuses to do the extra credit problems on his math tests simply because he doesn't have to-- even though doing them has obvious benefits. He just finds school to be a waste of his time, whereas I look forward to it-- except for the whole waking up early bit. ;)
One issue, I think, is the standardized tests. Teachers focus on making sure the kids memorize the material, instead of learning it, identifying with it, and loving it. I've been fortunate enough to not have many of this sort since starting high school, but my old middle school is full of them.

I was studying atomic structure and rudimentary string theory (as depicted in A Wrinkle in Time, for context) in elementary school without knowing exactly how advanced those subjects actually are...simply because I found them fascinating.
In 2nd grade, when my teacher told me we were going to be learning about matter in our next unit, I assumed she was talking about why things matter to us, and why we value the things that we do. And I was really looking forward to the unit. Of course, it turned out to be about solids, liquids, and gases. I still haven't found a class about my kind of mattering.

If teachers encouraged all kids to go ahead and explore the stuff they find interesting, and provided them the resources with which they could do so, I think people would end up both better-educated and more specialized. Of course, there should still be a set required curriculum, but I wish there was more space and leeway for in-school branching-out, instead of making us turn to learning online or out of library books. There's something special about learning in the environment that a school provides.

Kenny said...

Ever since reading Looking For Alaska this summer, the thought of being an Ethics/Religion teacher in a high school has held some appeal. I imagine that is the sort of class wherein students would be directed to explore what matters to them. However, in a world where math and english programs are being short-changed and musics and the arts are being cut, I doubt that getting philosophy added to the curriculum would be a straightforward struggle.

Should you choose to attend, I expect that you will like college. The way my undergrad worked, in addition to the requirements specific to your major, you also were required to take courses in a broad range of topics. However, each topic could be fulfilled by taking courses on a number of very different subjects. For example, one could take US History, Ethics of Diversity, or Disney: Gender, Race, Empire, among many others, to satisfy the Difference, Power, and Discrimination requirement.

elfarmy17 said...

At the moment, I'm definitely choosing to attend. It's just a matter of finding the best school-- all of the PSAT-spawned emails I'm getting say basically the same thing, so it's difficult to know which ones I'd like better.
I know that at my school, there's absolutely no way a philosophy-based class would ever start with this economy. In some ways, I'm glad; I don't have space in my schedule for yet another cool class to take.